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Co-Dependency: Family Roles in Addiction

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Preface: I write this article from a purely opinion based standpoint. The only knowledge I have on co-dependency is personal experience of being an addict in a family made co-dependent by my behaviors. The information and ideas contained in this post were mainly gathered from pre-existing sources and addiction therapy literature. This post is by no means indicative of every family struggling with addiction, but instead is a common theme in such families.

The term ‘co-dependency’ is popular in addiction treatment and among therapists, but what does it mean exactly? Mental Health America defines co-dependency as follows, “It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.” In fact, the term was first created as a result of a study focused on the family structure of alcoholics. A co-dependent relationship takes away the serenity, energy, and well-being of at least one person involved. Often times a person in a co-dependent relationship will begin to place their whole identity on the other person, at the expense of their own health and sanity. In families dealing with addiction, the parents, spouse, or siblings of the addict can become a victim of a co-dependent relationship.


The ‘Survival Roles’

For families dealing with an addict, there is a pattern of roles that family members take on in order to preserve the integrity and safety of the family. Often they take on these roles unconsciously and researchers have come up with 5 standard roles that seem to occur in co-dependent families. They are as follows:

  1. Enabler: The enabler’s efforts are well-meaning, but are often counterproductive. They aim to help the addict but their actions allow the addict to continue his addictive behaviors. They may fund the addict, make excuses for them, or take over the addict’s responsibilities. The enabler seeks to protect the addict and does not want to confront the reality of the addiction. As a result, the enabler is often left hurt, exhausted, and angry. The addict is no closer to getting better, because they learn to think that the enabler will always be there to save them.
  2. Hero: The hero role of the family is played by the member who seeks to over-achieve or be extra responsible in order to make up for the behavior of the addict. To overcome the guilt and shame that addiction brings to a family, they seek success, money, and approval. The cost of being the hero of the family is that they rarely feel satisfied with themselves and sacrifice their emotional lives and energy into trying to maintain the family.
  3. Scapegoat: This role is most often played by a sibling of the addict or one of the parents. Their bad behavior is different than that of the addicts. The family will often take out their anger and frustration towards the addict on the scapegoat, because they are an easier target.
  4. Lost Child: The lost child is a sibling of the addict who either keeps a low profile or is neglected by the family. The addict can take up all the attention and effort of the family, leaving the lost child without much care or recognition. The family is so busy and stressed looking after or cleaning up after the addict, that the other siblings can get ignored. They can go unnoticed and disappear easily. As a result, they can feel unimportant or unloved.
  5. Mascot: The mascot is a contrast to the lost child. This is often a younger sibling who comes along in a family system made extremely dysfunctional by addiction. The parents react by coddling and protecting this child. They give all their support and approval to this child, seeing him as the ‘saving grace’ of the family. The family may withhold information about the addict from the mascot and downplay the dysfunctional status of the family. Eventually the mascot will discover the truth about their family dynamic and can feel pressured or betrayed by the family.

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